Studies in the Literary Imagination

Suggestion in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata

Suggestion in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata

Meyer-Dinkgrafe, Daniel


1985 saw the first performances of Peter Brook’s production of The Mahabharata, a theatre version of the ancient Indian epic that he had written in conjunction with Jean Claude Carriere. The Mahabharata is fifteen times the length of the Bible, eight times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined, or more than thirty times the length of Paradise Lost (Williams 19). Brook’s theatre production lasted for nine hours, his TV/film version for six. The production caused a stir in the worlds of entertainment and academia, hailed by theatre critics as one of the major productions of the twentieth century, and predominantly judged a failure by theatre scholars, especially those from India, who, on the whole, felt offended by the way Peter Brook treated “their” national religious epic. The debate is well documented in a purpose-published collection edited by David Williams.

I did not have the chance to see the original theatre production. Instead, I encountered Brook’s production through the TV/film version, which I first saw in Norway (on the Swedish channel, with Swedish subtitles) in 1990. 1 was genuinely impressed by the production: I found that, as I watched, it provided me with experiences I otherwise would have associated only with my experiences while practicing meditation. Therefore, I was quite disappointed by the scholarly response to it.


At this stage of reading my essay, some readers may feel alarmed at my use of the first-person perspective. Certainly, when I studied English literature in the late 1970s at a German university, I would have been penalized for this choice of address. Within the German university system, literature generally is (supposed to be) studied and taught as a science (Literaturwissenschaft; literally, “literature science”). Referring to myself is subjective, and thus not scientific-science understood here as the attempt at being as objective as possible, safeguarded by, among others, strict exclusion of the subjective.

If you were or are alarmed at my admittedly subjective approach, then this demonstrates the science-orientation of literary scholarship. If, however, you feel comfortable with my approach, wondering where it may lead, you represent a tendency in at least part of science to take the subjective more seriously. In the booming consciousness debate outlined in the introduction to this collection, socalled “first-person approaches” have received a broad base of discussion, with numerous publications bearing to this-for example, The View From Within: First-Person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness, edited by Jonathan Shear and Francisco Varela. One of the leading philosophers working in Consciousness Studies, David Chalmers, argues that

the development of more sophisticated methodologies for investigating first-person data and of formalisms for expressing them is the greatest challenge now facing a science of consciousness. Only by developing such methodologies and formalisms will we be able to collect and express first-person data in such a way that it is on a par with third-person data, so that we can find truly systematic and detailed connections between the two.

I have decided to take my “feeling,” my “first-person experiences,” regarding Brook’s Mahabharata seriously. In the first stage of developing a discourse in which to express those feelings and experiences in such a way that they make sense to others, I have argued elsewhere that the theoretical approaches adopted by a majority of critics do not do justice to the work of art almost by definition. Such approaches are clearly set within the confines of the Western mindset, with its predominance and superiority of reason, intellect, concepts, historicity, and understanding over levels of the mind that, in the context of the Western mindset, are considered inferior, such as intuition, anything that cannot be expressed clearly in words, hunches, myth, archetypes, the spiritual, the universal. It is striking that most Indian commentators on The Mahabharata, particularly Rustom Bharucha, follow the same pattern. Moreover, their criticism is flawed because they approach the production with tools and concepts inappropriate to its own aesthetic. Predominantly political (politically correct?), postcolonial, and superficially psychological approaches cannot do justice to a source (The Mahabharata) and a production both aiming to tell the story of humankind and reach a common ground beyond cultural diversity-a state of freedom characteristic of “total theatre” in Brook’s theatrical context-and liberation (moksha) in the philosophical context of The Mahabharata (Meyer-Dinkgrafe 71).

In this essay, I want to take the argument further by asking: how can drama (and, by implication, theatre) influence the mind of the reader/spectator? Various models exist to answer the question, such as Freudian or Jungian psychological models; we have seen their applications to literature in the first two essays in this collection. The subjective element returns here as well: my choice of approach is subjective, based on my experiences in life. The other contributors could say much the same about their essays.

Many critics have noted that Brook’s Mahabharata hints at and implies philosophical concepts, but it hardly ever presents them directly or didactically. The key term in this context is suggestion. For example, set and costumes suggest India, create a sense of India, without being museum replicas. Brook calls it “a flavour of India” (Presence 44). “Suggestion” is the most common translation of the Indian aesthetic concept of dhvani, which was first elaborated by Anandavardhana (tenth century AD) in his Dhvanyaloka and followed by a commentary by Abhinavagupta (late tenth century AD). To understand how dhvani functions, it is important to grasp how Indian philosophy conceptualizes language and the human mind.


Indian philosophy proposes “an architecture of increasingly abstract, functionally integrated faculties or levels of mind.” This hierarchy ranges from gross to subtle, from highly active to settled, from concrete to abstract, and from diversified to unified (Alexander 290). The senses constitute the grossest, most highly active, most concrete, and most diversified level of the mind, followed by desire, the thinking mind, the discriminating intellect, feeling and intuition, and the individual ego. Indian philosophy uses the term “mind” in two ways: “It refers to the overall multilevel functioning of consciousness as well as to the specific level of thinking (apprehending and comparing) within that overall structure” (290). Underlying the subtlest level, that of the individual ego, and transcendental to it, is the Self, “an abstract, silent, completely unified field of consciousness” (290). This is the level of pure consciousness, pure consciousness event, and degree zero, referred to by Haney and by Malekin and Yarrow in this collection. It is the level at which archetypes function. Each subtler level is able to “observe and monitor the more expressed levels” (291). All levels of the mind are open to direct experience, including pure consciousness. This view is of course in opposition to Western psychology of Freudian and Jungian origin, which argues that the unconscious is ultimately never open to awareness. Indian philosophy not only describes distinct levels of the mind but also proposes higher stages of the development of consciousness, stages that go beyond the ordinary states of waking, sleeping, and dreaming. The development is characterized initially by glimpses of a simultaneity of experience of pure consciousness together with either waking, sleeping, or dreaming. When pure consciousness is permanently experienced together with any of the other three, this state is called “cosmic consciousness.” Any level of the mind must be considered incomplete and limited as long as it is not experienced simultaneously with pure consciousness. Haney refers to this experience as the “dual mystical state.” “Cosmic consciousness” is followed by “refined cosmic consciousness,” which is characterized by refined sensory perception. Finally, in “unity consciousness,” one is able to perceive everything in terms of the transcendental Self (290).


Vedic grammarian Bhartrihari describes several levels of language, vaikhari, madhyama, pashyanti, and para. Vaikhari “is the most external and differentiated level,” at which speech is uttered by the speaker and heard by the listener (Coward 128). Its temporal sequence is fully developed. Madhyama represents, in broad terms, the thinking level of the mind. It is the idea or series of words as conceived by the mind after hearing or before speaking. It may be thought of as inward speech. All parts of speech that are linguistically relevant to the sentence are present here in a latent form (129).

The finest relative linguistic level is that of pashyanti. At this level, “there is no distinction between the word and the meaning, and there is no temporal sequence” (Coward 131). Beyond the very subtly manifest level of pashyanti, Bhartrihari locates the fully unmanifest level of language, para (131).

Bhartrihari associates the pashyanti level of language with the concept of sphota. Sphota represents meaning as a unified whole that exists in the mind of the speaker: “When he utters it, he produces a sequence of different sounds so that it appears to have differentiation” (Coward 73). The process of differentiation into sounds proceeds from the sphota at the pashyanti level of language via madhyama, or inward thought, to expressed speech at the vaikhari level. For the listener, the process is reversed. Although he first hears a series of sounds, he ultimately perceives the utterance as a unity-“the same sphota with which the speaker began” (73). The sphota, or meaning-whole, thus has two sides to it: the word-sound (dhvani) and the word-meaning (artha; 12). Sound and meaning are two aspects residing within the unitary sphota, which, according to Bhartrihari, is eternal and inherent in consciousness (12). Thus, meaning is not conveyed “from the speaker to the hearer”; rather, “spoken words serve only as a stimulus to reveal or uncover the meaning which was already present in the mind of the hearer” (12).


Art creates an aesthetic experience in the beholder. The key concept in relation to this experience is rasa, a term that occurs frequently in Vedic texts and has various meanings: water, Soma juice, cow’s milk and its flavor, the sap of grain and its taste, essence, or quintessence and “self-luminous consciousness” (Mishra, Rasa 197), “a certain white liquid extracted by the digestive system from the food whose main seat is the heart” (Pandey 10). The spiritual aspect of the meaning of rasa is emphasized in Shankara’s commentary of the Upanishadic use of the term: “Rasa is here used to mean such bliss as is innate in oneself and manifests itself … even in the absence of external aids to happiness. It emphasises that the bliss is non-material, i.e. intrinsic, spiritual, or subjective” (qtd. in Rhagavan 20).

In the context of Indian aesthetics, rasa is understood as the art recipient’s aesthetic experience. The nature of this aesthetic experience, rasa, is the experience of pure consciousness, as defined above, along with the mind’s art-specific regions (in the broad definition of Indian philosophy). The mind’s art-specific contents reside predominantly at the level of emotion, which explains why “rasa” is often translated as “sentiment.” Through repeated exposure to the experience of pure consciousness brought about by experiencing a work of art, the recipient is trained to uphold pure consciousness for longer periods of time, ultimately indefinitely, and not only in subsequent cases of encountering works of art but also in daily life. In the case of theatre, an actor’s abilities facilitate the spectator’s experience of rasa. The Natyashastra is the major treatise describing numerous aspects of rasa theory and containing elaborate instructions for how an actor should use his or her body and mind to create appropriate rasa in the spectator.


According to Indian linguistics, when we hear words, we do not decode the meaning intended by the speaker. Rather, the speaker’s words trigger a recollection of meaning that is already present deep in our minds-at the para level of pure consciousness. Obviously, different spoken words will trigger different specific recollections depending on context. From the stimulation at the para level of the mind, word-sounds materialize (imperceptibly) via the levels of pashyanti and madhyama until the hearer becomes conscious of them at the vaikhari level. A sufficiently refined awareness also should be able to experience the subtler levels of language directly (Malekin and Yarrow). Dhvani refers to the various ways to use words in literature to create rasa within the reader. If rasa takes place predominantly at the level of emotion, then here is how Abhinavagupta explains how dhvani “works.” Pandit summarizes as follows:

Through the semantic dhvani-which, again, is not explicitly brought to consciousness-the literary work activates traces in the mind of the reader, but does not bring them into consciousness. Again, these traces may be activated by words, phrases, topics, etc.; thus stories of suffering will activate memories of suffering, stories of romantic love will activate memories of romantic love, and so on, both at a rather general level, and in various specific details (e.g., a wedding day, an estrangement and reconciliation), etc. Once these traces are activated, the associated emotions seep into consciousness (again, not as ideas, but directly as feelings). The experience of the rasa of a literary work is precisely the experience of these feelings. If we take the additional dimension of rasa, pure consciousness, into account, then we can argue that dhvani in literature is able to not only trigger the recognition of meaning and the appropriate intended emotion, but also the experience of pure consciousness itself, together with expressed contents of consciousness (meaning and emotions). (151)

Spoken or written words thus have an effect on the listener’s or reader’s mind that goes beyond the apparent surface of the specific words. The process does not operate at the intellectual level. If we attempt to understand intellectually (as opposed to experientially) how dhvani works, we end up with the concept of suggestion, which can be suspect to the intellect-dominated Western mindset because of its vagueness and subjectivity.1

Dhvani encompasses numerous techniques that apply to the use of Sanskrit as a language, in which name, form, sound, and meaning are considered identical. Sushant Kumar Mishra summarizes some of the possible categories of dhvani.2


I am not proposing that Peter Brook and Claude Carriere intentionally used the concept of dhvani in creating their scripts. That their text uses suggestion rather than explicit explanation of storyline and philosophical concepts is beyond doubt. Take the Bhagavad-Gita, for example. A close look at the actual text of that brief passage in the production reveals that Brook captures its essence: in the course of a long conversation, Krishna leads the hero, Arjuna, to a state of full enlightenment. In the dramatic structure Brook has chosen, with its emphasis on action and linear narrative, the Bhagavad-Gita’s long spiritual discourse defies any other rendering: it is in line with the overall concept. How does such suggestion work? If we apply the principles behind dhvani to Brook’s production, the following picture emerges: the text takes up some ideas of Indian philosophy-a flavor, aspects; you may even call them fragments. By incorporating this notion into all levels of production (spoken text, gestures, facial expression, costume, set design, music etc.), “traces,” or memories, are activated in the minds of all those exposed to such stimuli (i.e., spectators and production team). Such a process, according to the dhvani theory, applies to any process of receiving art. The kind of memories activated by art depend on the nature of that art. A horror movie, if we want to call it art, is not likely to trigger much enjoyable material, let alone an experience of pure consciousness. However, in the case of Brook’s Mahabharata, the source material from the epic is such that even fragments of it contain the whole; therefore, suggestion of any of these fragments triggers an appropriate emotional response in the viewer, simultaneously enabling the experience of pure consciousness. I propose that, on a concrete, rather than abstract, level of pure consciousness, not only emotions are triggered; experiences of aspects that would be described intellectually as concepts also are triggered. For the Mahabharata, the most important of these is dharma. In general, dharma is defined as “that invincible power of nature which upholds existence. It maintains evolution and forms the very basis of cosmic life. It supports all that is helpful for evolution and discourages all that is opposed to it” (Mahesh Yogi 26).

On a personal, individual level, one meaning of dharma is “allotted duty,” “that which it is natural for one to do, that for which one was born” (Mahesh Yogi 191). Dharma also can be associated with law, justice, customary morality, reflective morality, duty, and conscience (Kuppuswamy 24). According to Kakar, dharma refers to the general plan of any person’s life-his or her life-cycle (ashramadharma)-and, most importantly, the individual’s “own particular life– task, his svadharma” (37). According to the Bhagavad-Gita, each individual has “his own inborn nature, svabhava, and to make it effective in his life is his duty, svadharma” (Kuppuswamy 129). This individual life-task is not absolute but embedded in one’s personal historical condition:

Hindu philosophy and ethics teach that “right action” for an individual depends on desa, the culture in which he is born; and kala, the period of historical time in which he lives; on srama, the efforts required of him at different stages of life; and on gunas, the innate psycho-biological traits which are the heritage of an individual’s previous lives. (Kakar 37)

In the course of time, Kakar argues, svadharna came to mean “traditional action … in the sense that an individual’s occupational activity and social acts are right or ‘good’ if they conform to the traditional pattern prevalent in his kinship and caste group” (37).

It is important to note that the concept of dharma functions on two levels: originally, dharma describes how nature functions. This applies to enlightenment (moksha), where such functioning is in accordance with the laws of nature and the cosmos. It is automatic, spontaneous, fully and universally life-supporting, and not subject to manipulation or misuse. At the second level of meaning, dharma lays down rules intended to lead people on their path to enlightenment. Applied rules of dharma vary according to the historical and cultural circumstances of the times in which they were recorded. For example, women in Vedic times (2500 BC to 500 BC) enjoyed religious and social status equal to that of men (Kuppuswamy 183). At a later stage and as documented in the Manusmritis, a major text in the canon of dharmashastra (the holy texts on dharma), women’s role in society had changed considerably (Doniger). Thus, as soon as dharma becomes open to individual, culture-bound interpretation, it becomes open to manipulation and misuse. Someone might, for example, wish to maintain his powerful status by convincing another that his or her dharma is to be in a comparatively lesser position. Once open to ignorance, dharma as a concept may be misused. As a cosmic, universally applicable pattern of nature’s functioning, however, dharma is not changed by such manipulation. There may well be clashes between what someone is told to be his duty and that same person’s “real” dharma, his true vocation. If dharma has its own way in an enlightened society, duty and vocation will coincide. The precondition of enlightenment is that the individual follow his dharma, his allotted duty, because only then can evolution take place. Consequently, the person who has gained enlightenment will fully live his dharma.

The above is but a very brief description of the concept of dharma, and there are many books that treat it in detail. Yet dharma is not (only) an intellectual concept open to speculation and intellectual inquiry. It is considered, in Indian philosophy, an existential, fundamental truth that has its basis not in speculation but in direct experience. Whereas drama cannot provide all knowledge about dharma, it can provide the experience of it by triggering its “traces” on deep levels of the reader’s or spectator’s (and the author’s director’s, and actor’s) consciousness.

One final caveat: Brook’s production text is not in Sanskrit, where the dhvani theory applies, but in French or English. Haney points out that, in other languages, tradition of usage has led to associating specific sounds with given objects or concepts. Haney argues, however, that,

because Sanskrit is considered by orthodox Indians to be the oldest documented language and probably the source of all languages, the same unity of name and form found in it must exist to some extent in other languages when experienced on sufficiently refined levels of consciousness. (316)

In other words, the effect may be more efficient when Sanskrit is used, and this perhaps implies also the use of theatre as described in the Natyashastra. However, I would expect that Western drama (text) and theatre (modes of performance) can have the same effect. For me, Brook’s production of The Mahabharata does, and I have tried to explain why.

University of Wales, Aberystwyth

Copyright Studies in the Literary Imagination Fall 2001

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